Politics & Policy

Birkenstocked Burkeans

Confessions of a granola conservative.

Talking with a conservative friend the other day, I mentioned that my wife and I were having a friend over to dinner, and were going to serve him all kinds of delicious vegetables from the organic food co-op to which we belong.”Ewgh, That sounds so lefty,” she said. And she’s right. We’re probably the only Republicans who subscribe to this service, which delivers fresh vegetables once weekly to our neighborhood from farms out on Long Island, and at a good price. But so what? Are lefties the only ones allowed to consume quality produce? We made fun of our liberal friends who did this stuff last summer, until we actually tasted the vegetables they got from the farm. We’re converts now, and since you asked, I don’t remember being told when I signed up for the GOP that henceforth, I was required to refuse broccoli that tastes like broccoli because rustic socialist composters think eating it is a good idea.

Then again, Julie and I are probably the crunchiest — as in granola — conservatives we know (hey, my bride even makes her own granola). In some respects, the life we live and the values we share have more in common with left-wing counterculturalists than with many garden-variety conservatives. What we share is a disdain for, or at least a healthy suspicion of, mass culture. It makes for interesting bedfellows.

Boston College professor Peter Kreeft discovered this phenomenon a few years ago. Kreeft said he and three friends fit John Courtney Murray’s four American political types: radical, liberal, traditionalist, and conservative. One day, Kreeft, a traditional Catholic, discovered a close affinity with the Marxist atheist in the group. What did it was driving around Cambridge and judging everyone’s reaction to a new housing development the conservative Republican had moved into. It was clean, well lighted, green, and spacious, with attractive amenities.

Kreeft and his friend Dick, the radical, thought it was an abomination, because it was ugly and therefore inhuman. The conservative said the fact that they cared about how the place looked marked them as “artsy-fartsy,” but the traditionalist and the radical argued that beauty was one of the most important things there is.

Soon, Kreeft and his radical friend found out that despite the gulf that separated them on politics, they shared a number of areas of agreement (suburbs bad; nature good; big business and big government bad; small business and small government good). Kreeft determined from this that “beneath the current political left-right alignments there are fault lines embedded in the crust of human nature that will inevitably open up some day and produce earthquakes that will change the current map of the political landscape.”

Well, maybe. All I can tell you is that the crunchy-granola lefties are often right about little things that make life richer. Take food, for example. After we married, Julie and I had to teach ourselves how to cook. We quickly discovered how much better food tastes if it hasn’t been processed. We’d go to farmers’ markets in the city to buy produce, and before we knew it, we were making and canning our own apple butter. Not only did the stuff taste dramatically better than what was on offer in the supermarket, but there was a real sense of pride in knowing how to do these things for ourselves, like our grandmothers did. We realized one day that pretty much the only young to middle-aged people we knew who cared about these things were … lefties.

We were also startled to discover how large the homeschooling movement is here in New York City, and that it’s primarily a phenomenon of the left-wing counterculture. Given our backgrounds in Texas and Louisiana, we assumed religious conservatives were the only folks interested in homeschooling. I did some reporting on homeschoolers in Manhattan, and learned that most of them did it for the same reasons we plan to: an unwillingness to trust the state schools here with something as important as our children’s education.

All sorts of things started to occur to us. The music we like — jazz, hard country, bluegrass, Cuban son — is something you can only hear on, umm, public radio or see on public television. When we began talking about buying a house, we realized we wanted something old and funky, in the sort of neighborhood that your average Republican would disdain. We found that though the Shiite environmentalists drive us nuts, there was also something off-putting about the way many conservatives speak with caustic derision about environmental conservation. Two weeks ago, some conservative friends were driving me down the Pacific Coast Highway, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty, as they are. “I’m afraid we have to tip our hats to the tree-huggers,” said one. “If it weren’t for them, much of what you see would be covered with tract houses and malls.”

Here’s something else I’ve noticed: The Granola Conservatives I know tend not to be wealthy, but labor in the creative and intellectual vineyards as writers, professors, and artists. They also tend to be religious. It’s foolish to go too far in metaphysicalizing questions of taste, but a big part of it, at least for those of us who are part of older Christian traditions, comes from learning to see the world sacramentally. In the sacramental vision, which is shared by Catholics and the Orthodox, the spirit world is mediated through the material world, which is another way of saying we experience God in creation. To someone imbued with a sacramental vision, qualities inherent in things — from the food we eat to the buildings we live in — matter in profoundly spiritual ways.

Admittedly, this is very close to what David Brooks identified as classic bourgeois Bohemian (“Bobo”) behavior. “Marx once wrote that the bourgeois takes all that is sacred and makes it profane. The Bobos take everything that is profane and make it sacred,” he writes in Bobos in Paradise, his highly entertaining foray into pop sociology. “We take the quintessential bourgeois activity, shopping, and turn it into quintessential bohemian activities: art, philosophy, social action.”

In Brooks’s view, the Bobo will spend lots of money on things he believes (though not consciously) possess the power to transfer spiritual or moral qualities to its owner. This debased form of sacramentalism is an ersatz, consumerist version of the real thing, which doesn’t fetishize objects themselves, but which is really a way of thinking about the importance of aesthetics to the good life. This may be a distinction without a discernible difference; Brooks told me that conservative writers just have to live with the fact that we share certain tastes with the predominantly liberal intellectual class. But if there’s nothing to it, and the consumer choices people make are purely a function of social determinism, then it leaves no room for the person who purchases certain products simply because the products look good, taste good or offer superior value, despite costing more. It means accepting bad beer, lousy coffee, Top-40 radio, strip malls, and all popular manifestations of cheapness and ugliness as proof that One Is Not an Effete Liberal. And that’s just as phony as anything the Bobos stand for.

Curious about the possible spiritual aspect of this phenomenon, I wrote to my crunchy-right friends Julianne Loesch Wiley (a Catholic) and Frederica Mathewes-Green (Orthodox), both of whom have long been active in the pro-life movement, to ask them how they reconciled their conservatism with their countercultural tastes. Frederica responded first, saying that she embraced her “mother-earth hippie aesthetic” in her liberal youth, and has stuck with it even though she’s now firmly in the religious conservative camp.

“What hooked me then, and continues to hold me, and what is the underlying theme of the contemporary liberal side of this aesthetic, is authenticity,” she said. “I read a piece in American Demographics a few years ago about this, that the hook for progressives is this concept of ‘authenticity,’ the distrust of mass-produced sentiment or materials.”

She thinks secular leftists, having emptied the world of God, hunger for something to anchor their lives, and seek it out in various manifestations of Boboism. As a believing Christian and a religious conservative, though, Frederica still feels a kinship with this longing, “because I find in the presence of the old and funky furniture and things I live with a reminder of the goodness of the material world God made, and visited, and fills.”

“Every single thing that comes into my house, down to the salt shakers, have to first pass a test of being persuasive, winsome, original, odd — ‘authentic.’ I think that this is a cousin to what you and Julie are doing with food and other tastes. You’re looking for true quality and refusing to be satisfied with Purina People Chow. You have your antennas up for what is real, original, worthy. And to many conservatives, that sounds stuck-up and suspiciously lefty.”

Catholic Julianne says she absorbed a lot of her “natural” ideas through her anti-abortion activism. Awe over the miracle of birth led her to study natural-childbirth practices, which hooked her up with herb-savvy Earth Mother types in Birkenstocks — “and before you know it, I was eating nutritional yeast on my baked potatoes. Eeuh! Liberal!”

Teaching her kids to read early made Julianne think that maybe the intellectually deadening public school wasn’t the best thing for them, and she became a homeschooler without quite realizing what was happening. “That’s supposed to be right-wing,” she wrote. “But I was first introduced to homeschooling by John Holt, who was left-wing. How do I know? There were certain telltale phrases he used. He didn’t trust the Establishment. He didn’t trust the government schools. But that’s right wing now. Funny how I went straight from left wing to right wing without ever once passing through a phase where I trusted the government.”

That’s an amusing line, but it also points out how so many of us depend on labels to frame our experiences so as not to be disturbed by the idea that somebody on the other side might be on to something good, beautiful or true. Somebody’s got to pioneer these things. My wife gets a kick out of the fact that she’s the only housewife in the neighborhood who carries home her organic vegetables in a National Review Online tote bag. Who knows, one of these days, maybe one of the liberal housewives doling out the Swiss chard on delivery day will ask her about the flat tax. Dare to dream, you Birkenstocked Burkeans, and pass the hippie carrots.


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